It’s a rhetorical question people sometimes ask, so I don’t need to be a wise-ass and answer: probably. Harvesting the fruit of your labor is fulfilling, no doubt about it, but picking food you didn’t lift a finger to grow? Never planted, weeded, fenced off from critters, mulched, watered? That’s got a kleptomaniac’s thrill about it. Oyster mushrooms on a tree stump. Bunches of wild grapes dripping from fence posts. And for a week or two, when July turns into August, lining roadside ditches and fields you forgot to mow, the iridescent canes of the wineberry.
Let me tell you about wineberries, which I met when I moved north from the city a few years ago. I thought they were raspberries then; not so. They turn out to be a smaller and seedier, but an equally delicious cousin that emigrated from Japan. They’re a tenacious invader. You can’t buy them at nurseries because you’re not supposed to plant them, or move them, but they’re settling in just fine without any coddling from us. “Wineberry poses a threat to native flora because of its vigorous growth, which allows it to crowd out native plants and establish extensive patches,” according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Immigrants they may be, but they were here in the woods behind my house before I got here. To my mind, the sticky clusters of plumping buds are summer. They are as iconic as fireflies or fireworks – and as fleeting.
We are at peak berries this very moment as I sit here typing, and it seems criminal not to be out harvesting. Last year, we froze a bunch in Ziplocks. All winter long, we’d toss a handful of frozen berries into plain yogurt, stir vigorously, and out would come a pink, sweet yogurt. It was our go-to snack, our virtuous desert, and our fallback baby food. Baby suddenly refuses to eat eggs for breakfast? It’s past dinnertime and baby is starving and we don’t seem to have any food in the fridge? Yogurt and berries.
This year, though, we could do better than a few Ziplocks. It could be a different ball game altogether – if I could find time to get back out into the abandoned cow fields. I don’t know if it’s an exceptional wineberry year, or if it just happens that the conditions across the street from us have created the ideal wineberry habitat, or both.
I hadn’t even noticed the For Sale sign in front of the farm opposite ours until I started scouting for berries. Driving back roads this time of year, I keep a perpetual scan on the roadsides. I was slowing down to pull into my driveway when the late afternoon sun lit up the motherload of berry thickets on the other side of the wooden cow fence.
It made every other patch I’d been picking at look like a waste of time. I ditched my car and hopped the fence. It was a sturdy, handsome wooden fence that had just gone up last year (when you have animals, particularly animals that like to escape, you start to appreciate fences). They’d had about 30 cows here last year. “The cows are in town,” Husband Joe and I would say to each other, when they were on the stretch of pasture that was visible from our place. Having cows for neighbors made us feel like real farmers.
But the cows hadn’t been in town at all, I suddenly realized. Another farm bites the dust. Now, acres upon acres of pasture that hadn’t been grazed all season were in that scrubby phase where berries thrive.
I didn’t have much time to pick; we had guests coming over who were passing through town. Plus the groceries were in my car getting hot. But each time I was about to head back I spotted a glistening cluster on its way from blood red to royal purple. The berries would be desiccated and fall to the ground if I waited even one day.
It was getting to be an unacceptably long time I’d been gone, but I reassured myself that no one had to know where I’d been. Even though I was close to the road, the bushes were so thick that I was pretty sure no one could see me, and if they could see a person, they certainly couldn’t make out who it was. I’d just say that I’d gotten held up at the grocery store.
Then our guests drove by, honked and waved.
I could hear them saying their hellos to Joe and baby Kai. It was rude, now, but still I went from one patch to the next, knees getting snagged and bloodied.
By the time I got back, my bag was full, but our guests were gone.
The berries won’t wait, is the thing. I had a feeling my friends would understand, because in their backyard, between the house and the stream, along the fence that separates the house from the neighbors’ – they’ve got berry brambles, too.
Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite who now lives on a farm upstate and writes about the rural life.